The Art of Dining: Inside Francis Mallmann's Provencal Kitchen, Villa La Coste
Louise Bourgeois’ sculptures, Tracey Emin installations and Renzo Piano land art are plotted across this corner of Provence’s gently rolling landscape – but it's Argentinian chef Francis Mallmann’s rustic restaurant at the château that really whets our appetite
20 November, 2019
Disembarking at Marseille Saint-Charles station, I pass a man in an overstuffed jumper eating an equally overstuffed baguette of ham, lettuce and an assortment of cheeses. Further along the platform, a woman holds a leash leading down to a whippet in one hand and a box of patisserie in the other. A madame teeters past, her knee-high stockings sliding down to expose her flesh through the back slit of her skirt. What begins as a far from picturesque introduction to the charms of Provence, however, soon morphs into a reassuring patchwork of pine forest, perfumed lavender fields and resolutely French villages as I speed along the country lanes to my destination, the dream-like Château La Coste.
This artistic escape and winery is tucked between arty Aix, formerly the home of the painter Cézanne, and the untamed Luberon Regional Nature Park. On arrival, I'm greeted by Louise Bourgeois' arresting sculptural work, Crouching Spider (2003), its twisted, vine-like legs straddling a vast infinity pool that serves both as the sculpture's stage and a shroud for the car park below. Two hangar-shaped cellars created by the French architect Jean Nouvel (who recently designed the Louvre Abu Dhabi) guard the concrete entrance to the Tadao Ando-designed Art Centre.
Other than the 125 hectares of vineyards, originally planted by the Romans and today producing biodynamic wines, this is certainly not the ochre-hued French farmhouse you'd expect of the region. The vines, I learn, were the carrot that first drew the Northern Irish property magnate Paddy McKillen to the region in 2002. Along with his sister Mara, who has lived in Provence for decades, McKillen has sown many creative seeds here. The outpourings of a plethora of international artists shape the 600 acres of art-filled grounds, with Provencal countryside the main source of inspiration. Sculpture, immersive installations and land art by the likes of Renzo Piano and Tracey Emin are plotted across the gently rolling landscape - in all, there are 35 artworks and three exhibition spaces.
I catch the tail end of an art tour - a two-hour ramble available to hotel residents - before riding up to the château's hotel component, Villa La Coste. The 28-suite villa sits on a ridge overseeing the property. In the lobby, cranberry and buttercream-coloured Pierre Yovanovitch chairs and a Jean Royère sofa prove wonderfully snug resting spots. Copper-topped tables are decorated with bowls brimming with apricots and behind the check-in desk a series of Alberto Giacometti sketches are on display. It's at once understated and overstated. The places are designed around people, with Hong Kong- based hotel designer André Fu appointed to work on the bar, spa, library and restaurant. Laid along a shaded avenue, each of the spacious suites is named after the surrounding mountains. All have a walled-in courtyard and those located on the upper level also have private plunge pools. Muslin curtains blow around four-poster beds, retro sofas face out to painterly views and large hunks of white marble have been carved into freestanding bathtubs. A bell jar guards a chocolate bombe on my dining table, which serves as an amuse-bouche before making my way to lunch at the restaurant, Louison.
En route to "déjeuner" I peep in at the empty business centre. In three years, "maybe three people have used it,'' the GM notes. Those in an OOO mindset have perhaps diverted to the spa, which skirts the business hub. Tall wooden doors open onto seven treatment rooms designed for scrubs, facials and massages conducted using organic Provencal products including lavender, jasmine, olives and apricots. I eye up the relaxation lounge and stained-glass yoga room and add my name to the therapist's appointment book.
Louison, located inside a tall, glass-walled building suspended over a pool of tranquil water, is surprisingly calming, despite its theatrical encasing. In the centre of the room, The Couple (2007-2009) - a polished aluminium piece by Louise Bourgeois - reflects the light streaming in from all sides. The menu is devoted to Provence and its produce, with ingredients sourced from both regional markets and the organic kitchen garden just moments away. If the menu appeals but you'd rather eat somewhere less formal, the library, Le Salon, your private terrace and garden are all possible dining venues. In fact most things, I'm beginning to learn, are a possibility here.
Rising with the sun, a light breakfast of delicately spiced tomato-and-raspberry compote accompanied by viscous vanilla yoghurt is consumed on the lobby patio in view of the temperamental valley. Setting off for the art tour, I'm guided through olive groves and vineyards speckled with installation pieces. I pass Richard Serra's steel sheets, Sean Scully's stacked stone sculpture and, the pinnacle of the tour, Tadao Ando's chapel-like space from which there are unobstructed views of the countryside. On our trail back we go by the property's syrah, cabernet sauvignon and vermentino vineyards as well as Frank Gehry's atypical structure, Pavilion De Musique (2008) - last seen at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Purpose-built for Château La Coste, the artworks are predominantly bred from personal relationships between the owner and a roster of starry names. Artists come to the domain to experience the place for themselves, sketch their ideas and ultimately choose a location for their installations.
This approach was no different for the Argentine chef Francis Mallmann, who has a restaurant at the château at which he has agreed to meet me during my stay. "When I first came and experienced this set-up of wilderness and sculpture and art and the beautiful hotel, I loved it. Regionally, this is such a rich part of the world," Mallmann tells me from his Provencal table, which specialises in slow-aged meats and buried-in-the-embers rescoldo vegetables. "I was inspired by Cézanne's atelier, here in the mountains in Aix. There's a stairway which goes up to his room where he worked and I loved the colours of it - black, green and a very light bonbon pink." This palette informs the interiors of the eponymously named restaurant where he now sits. Donning a denim beret (in lieu of a towering chef's hat) and cherry-red frames, Mallmann perches on the outdoor service counter, chatting with the restaurant's Head Chef, Francesco. "We have a large team from Argentina here. I really needed people who already knew the language of fire cooking because it's quite precise, what we do, and it takes a long time to learn. If there's no fire, there's no restaurant."
The Mallmann way of eating is rustic and elegant. Red-checked, antique tea towels hang on the walls, balanced by tiers of Astier de Villatte casserole dishes, charger plates and ceramics. Dishes include freshly caught fish cooked in a wood-burning oven, Charolais beef roasted by a feu en dome (heated iron dome) and pollos colgados (hung chicken). "It's taking luxury to its simplest place, editing it into something that isn't so shiny," Mallmann elaborates. "When Paddy and I decided that the restaurant was going to be where it is - back then it was a parking lot - I walked around the property with my daughter, found some pieces of iron and heated them. We cooked for everybody that night out of only a fire in the car park - meat and vegetables on the chapa (griddle). Four and a half months later, it was a restaurant; that's the way Paddy constructs."
We are interrupted by the arrival of our lunch. Mallmann, eager for me to eat, invites me back to his home - also on the estate - later that evening to talk further. When I arrive at his domain - a one-room, mustard-draped abode plotted amid an overrun landscape - he has just opened a bottle of wine. He ushers me to take a cushioned seat among yellow notebooks filled with watercolours, recipe scrawlings and quick sketches of nude women. A shrine to Astier de Villatte objects towers above me, identical to the pyramids observed in the restaurant.
"The most beautiful thing about eating and drinking a glass of wine is the conversation that accompanies them. Seventy per cent of the experience of dining is that," Mallmann begins. "You can sit on your own and consume something delicious, but the beauty is to share not the food or wine, but the experience." Our candlelit conversation spans vanity, fashion, breakfast choices, diary entries and sewing floral patches onto denim jeans like a "tidy grandma" - "sewing is meditative, it's like chopping," he asserts. "I travel with these yellow notebooks. I use one every six or seven months and write my recipes here; it's an important part of my life." He's also an avid poetry reader, an extracurricular that feeds into his culinary work. "It all started in a restaurant I had in Uruguay. I started painting poems on the walls and every season I'd begin again. I had a restaurant in the Hamptons and did the same thing. For some years I didn't use it, but now I am again."
A quote by Claude Lévi-Strauss scrawled on a pillar at restaurant Francis Mallmann springs to mind: "Was that what travel meant? An exploration of the desert of memory rather than those around me?" Deflecting to thoughts of the restaurant reminds me that Francis is likely to be needed in the kitchen soon. It has just gone 8pm and our chat is ebbing to a close. As a final question, I ask Francis what is vital in his calculation of a restaurant. "I'd rather be somewhere remote. I like silence and the journey the guest makes to come and see you." It makes sense that silence and contemplation are the bedrock for this chef with a self-professed "soul of a poet and eye of a painter". He is himself a form of aesthetic expression. It seems everything in this place is founded on the theory of beauty and the philosophy of art.